By Ross Miller
Halloween comes early this year with The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a meta sequel/remake of the 1976 slasher horror of the same name. The new film takes place in a world where the original film actually exists, having been based on a series of murders that took place in the small border town of Texarkana. But when the murders start up again during a remembrance Halloween screening, the terrified people of the town wonder whether it’s a copycat or the original killer somehow back for more. Now that’s what I call meta! To celebrate the release of the film we’re taking a looking at some of the best meta horror movies.
Produced by legendary Italian horror master Dario Argento and directed by his long-time collaborator Lamberto Bava, this unique horror follows a group of people who are invited to a secretive screening at a large rundown cinema. During a disturbing horror film they find themselves trapped inside the cinema while the creatures in the film literally burst out of the screen to either kill or possess the unsuspecting audience. Set to an enjoyably in-your-face rock soundtrack and with a distinct visual style, this is an equal parts knowing and genuinely terrifying horror..
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Many consider Wes Craven’s seminal slasher film Scream to be the first truly self-aware horror film (more on that later) but he actually beat himself to the punch with this, the seventh instalment in the long-running horror franchise. Unlike the rest of the series, it doesn’t continue on the story of the nightmarish Freddy Krueger haunting the residents of Elm Street, but rather sets up him as a fictional movie villain who somehow bursts out into the real world and starts haunting the cast and crew, primarily Helen Langenkamp who played the heroine in the original Elm Street. It’s both a meta exploration of the genre and a refreshing shot in the arm for a franchise that had grown stale.
While New Nightmare brought the horror in the “real world,” Scream saw Wes Craven playing around with the rules of slashers inside an on-going narrative. By the time it was released (can you believe it was almost 20 years ago?!), everyone knew what to expect from a slasher movie, but Scream gleefully took knife to those expectations and split them open for all to see. From its knowing dialogue – “What’s your favourite scary movie?… Please don’t kill me Mr. Ghostface, I wanna’ be in the sequel!” – to the fictional Stab movies that the characters watch, Scream is pure self-aware horror fun that, while it lets you in on the joke, still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve to make sure you’re surprised by the ending. Three similarly self-aware sequels followed and an upcoming TV series is set for release.
Funny Games (1997/2007)
Acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) took a stern shot at the home invasion horror back in the late ‘90s with Funny Games, an aggressively meta film about a duo of well-dressed, seemingly pleasant young men who turn up at the homes of their unsuspecting neighbours and take them hostage, putting them through a series of increasingly brutal and humiliating ordeals. It takes meta to a whole new level by having the repulsive anatagonist literally turn and talk to the camera in places – “I bet you’re on their side, aren’t you?” he calmly asks us – and was meant as a sort of telling off for an audience that had grown to enjoy violent movies. When the original German-language film failed to reach the targeted “violence-obsessed” American movie-going audience, Haneke remade his film virtually shot-for-shot a decade later which, as it turns out, was an exercise in futility because no one really took much notice of that one either!
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
It’s clear right from the outset of the “zom-rom-com” Shaun of the Dead that director/writer Edgar Wright and writer/star Simon Pegg are huge horror fans. The tongue-in-cheek soundtrack that includes “Ghost Town” and “Kernkraft 400”; the wonderfully self-aware dialogue – “The Z word, don’t say it! Why not? Because it’s ridiculous!”, “We’re coming to get you Barbara!” an obvious Night of the Living Dead reference; the scene in which the group pretend to be zombies to avoid detection… It’s all part of why the film is both a brilliant send-up of the well-worn zombie genre and a sincere example of one in its own right. Just remember what it teaches if the zombie apocalypse does ever happen; head to the pub, bar the doors, have a nice cold pint and wait for all this to blow over!
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
This criminally under-seen meta slasher is set in a world where legendary movie killers like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees actually exist, and follows the eponymous serial killer who wants to follow in their footsteps. Like Scream and New Nightmare , the film plays around with everything we’ve come to expect. This includes the very persona of the seemingly unstoppable killer – we see Leslie vigorously working out so that he can achieve the effect of the victim always running away as fast as they can while he appears to be catching up by simply walking – and the idea of who exactly his victims should be, for instance that there always needs to be a so-called “Survival Girl.”
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
A group of good-looking teens head out to a secluded, derelict cabin for a weekend of drunken debauchery. We all know this sort of film. We’ve seen it before. We know exactly what happens… right?! This hugely entertaining meta-horror – co-written by Geek King himself Joss Whedon – knows its audience down to a tee and wonderfully plays around with what they expect, from who survives to the very setting, delivering the sort of slasher thrills that the target audience craves while breaking down the very reasons why they want those types of thrills in the first place.
Honourable mentions: Zombieland, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Peeping Tom, Fright Night, Popcorn
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is released on April 17th.